Chemicals

HazCom—What You Must Put in Writing

Failure to have a written HazCom program consistently tops the list of OSHA general industry violations. Today we look at the essential elements of your written HazCom plan.

The hazard communication standard (HazCom), also known as “worker right-to-know,” is one of OSHA’s most important standards. In summary, it requires chemical manufacturers, importers, and users to evaluate and communicate to workers the hazards of chemicals they make, import, or use. And HazCom violations have historically resulted in high numbers of citations.

The twice-monthly OSHA Compliance Advisor newsletter describes HazCom as a performance-based standard, meaning that it is particular about the objectives employers must achieve, but flexible about the specific methods that are used to achieve them.

HazCom covers some 7 million workplaces, more than 100 million employees, and 945,000 hazardous chemical products. OSHA says that a hazard communication program “helps employers design and implement appropriate controls for chemical exposures and gives employees the right to know the hazards and identities of the chemicals, as well as allowing them to participate actively in the successful control of exposures.”


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The six core elements of HazCom are:

  • The hazard determination
  • The written hazard communication program
  • The Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS)
  • Chemical labeling
  • Employee information and training
  • Protections for chemical trade secrets

Under the standard, employers who manufacture, import, distribute, or use hazardous substances must communicate information about them to employees who work with them. This must be done through a written HazCom program, labels, MSDSs, and an employee information and training program.

Failure to have a written HazCom program has consistently been the top violation in general industry in recent years. Last year there were more than 2,200 violations with initial penalties of more than $1 million. Failure to provide training on new chemical hazards and failure to have MSDSs available also ranked high on the list.

Required Elements of a Written Program

Your written HazCom program does not have to be long or spell out everything in detail, but it must be well-thought-out, clear, and comprehensive, and outline all the parts of the program you are implementing. It is likely to be the first thing a compliance officer or inspector will ask to see if your facility is ever inspected. Here are the essential elements:

  • Labels and other forms of warning. Describe your criteria for labels and other forms of warning, including the person responsible for ensuring labeling of in-plant containers, the person responsible for ensuring labeling of shipped containers, the labeling system used, written alternatives to labeling of the in-plant containers, and procedures to review and update label information, when necessary.
  • MSDS access system. Describe your process for accessing MSDSs, including, if applicable, how to access the electronic MSDS file system or the services of a fax-back or other off-site MSDS retrieval service. The description must include the person(s) responsible for obtaining and maintaining the MSDSs, how they are accessed and maintained in the workplace, procedures to follow when the MSDS has not been received, and a description of alternatives to obtaining MSDS information (the backup system).
  • Nonroutine tasks. Include the methods you will use to inform employees of the hazards of nonroutine tasks (such as cleaning reactor vessels).
  • Pipes. Provide a description of how you will inform employees of the hazards associated with chemicals contained in unlabeled pipes in work areas.

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  • Access to the written plan. The HazCom plan must be readily available to employees, their designated representatives, the assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and Health (or applicable state agency), and the director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
  • Multiemployer worksites. If your company hires the services of an outside contractor or vendor, the company is responsible for ensuring compliance by the contractor with the requirements of HazCom if the contractor’s employees may be exposed to chemical hazards while working at the company’s facility.
  • Hazardous chemicals list. You are also required to prepare a list of all hazardous chemicals in your workplace as part of the written hazard communication program and check it against the appropriate MSDS.

If an MSDS is missing, the employer must get it from the manufacturer, distributor, or other source. The list will eventually serve as an inventory of everything for which an MSDS is required.

Your written program must also spell out your criteria for employee training. Tomorrow we’ll discuss what those criteria should include and what topics should be covered in HazCom training, and we’ll look at a product that can lift most of that burden from your shoulders.

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